It's tempting to tell a few white lies when you're trying to get your foot on the ladder. But will the imaginative Mr Ball's new-found love of DH Lawrence be his ticket out of Birds Eye?

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Phil Ball's account of starting teaching in the early 1980s continues. Our hero has survived his PGCE and heads to a secondary school near Hull for his first interview.

The school librarian pointed to the head of English's office, a small gloomy cubbyhole in a corner. On the small table in front of the chair into which I plonked myself lay a pile of unmarked essays and a couple of novels by DH Lawrence. Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow sat quietly to one side, both copies well thumbed. On the only wall space available, a poster had been stuck up featuring the classic moody mug-shot of Lawrence, all skinny face and bushy beard, staring at the world like a folk singer tired of life.

I hated Lawrence. I'd read both the books in front of me and I'd thought them dismal, full of over-serious people doing over-serious things, in seriously over-written prose. But it looked as though the man who was about to interview me thought differently. Just as I was reflecting on this, the secretary appeared at the door to the library and summoned me back to the headmaster's office.

A middle-aged man with curly brown hair and a bright, confident face sat behind a large oak desk. I assumed correctly that he was the boss. "Come in, Philip, come in," he urged, wafting the air in a gesture of friendly impatience.

The accent was faintly public school, faintly Yorkshire - never an easy combination. Then, at the far end of his long table, perched on the edge of his chair, I spied DH Lawrence.

The head's fellow interrogator, who I learned was the head of English, stood up quickly and nervously, and offered a sickly handshake. He was dark and small, with the Lawrence beard and the same tense expression, as if he needed to go to the toilet. "Glad you could make it," he opened, in more grammar-school tones. He had what looked like a series of questions jotted down on a piece of paper, which he slotted between his knees as he sat down.

"Well, then," began the headmaster, "let's get down to business then, shall we? Philip, if I may call you that, you've applied for the post of grade one English teacher here. Now I won't ask you why you've applied to this particular school, but let me just say that you've made a damn good choice.

Isn't that right?" he laughed, looking across at the brooding novelist.

"Absolutely," came the reply, in a tone that suggested that exactly the same thing had been said to the previous two candidates. "Now then, I'll abuse the head's prerogative and ask you the opening question. Why teach? Why come back and lock yourself away here when there's a whole world out there waiting to be conquered?"

It was a tricky question, as openers go. I got the impression that DH Lawrence thought so too, for he seemed to shuffle uncomfortably in his seat. I managed to clear the first obstacle. "Well, I think that you could perhaps say the same to anyone starting out, in any profession," I ventured. "You take one path and erm... you decide to go down it. I think I'm good with people. I'm not sure I see myself as a pen-pusher."

The boss seemed reasonably convinced by this. "How did the teaching practice go?" he probed. "Fine," I returned. "Some difficult pupils, but by and large they were OK. I enjoyed it."

The head nodded, his chin propped up by a fist and his face staring, across the table, into mine as if he were trying to detect the slightest rip in the mask. He gestured to his bearded colleague, who stared at the papers between his knees then suddenly looked up at me, almost melodramatically.

"Who's your favourite author, might I ask?" the head of English began.

Maybe he hadn't asked the others this question.

"Lawrence," I coughed. "Definitely Lawrence. Fantastic stuff."

"Lawrence?" he intoned, sitting up and focusing on me more attentively.

"That's amazing!" he pronounced, looking down the table at the big man, who smiled back indulgently. "How nice at last to find someone who appreciates good literature!" the bearded one enthused. Perhaps the previous candidates had expressed a weakness for The Beano.

"We have things in common. Love him myself. Can't get enough of him, but of course the students don't always agree. Got a sixth-form class at the moment that can't stand him, but there's no accounting for kids' tastes these days, eh?" Buoyed by this beginning, I scattered some more random thoughts, hoping for further fortune.

I suggested that with Lawrence, it might be a case of maturity - that with time they would come to see that he was a great writer. "That's right!"

frothed the head of English. "Much as I love him I wasn't sure that we should do him for A-level - The Rainbow's a bit convoluted sometimes. But the rest of the department voted me down. Anyway, which is your favourite?"

"Oh, Sons and Lovers - definitely. I think that few books have captured better that bitter-sweet thing." He nodded, whether the book was bitter-sweet or not. I also recalled, in a moment's inspiration, my mother saying that Trevor Howard had been wonderful as Walter Morel, the crabby old miner, in the film of Sons and Lovers that came out when I was three.

"And Trevor Howard, of course - wonderful in the film," I spouted. After that, the questions appeared to get easier.

The next day I was back on the six-till-two morning shift at Birds Eye, where I was working for the summer measuring and packing peas for weighing.

After I'd filled in Steve, the student architect working alongside me, on the interview, we decided to have a stab at the crosswords. The forklift drivers left their assorted tabloids on the weighbridge and would collect them before going up to the canteen, so we had the pick of the press when there was nothing better to do. Both of us being useless at crosswords, we would usually pick The Sun to do mid-morning, occasionally reaching for the more esoteric heights of the Daily Express or the Daily Mail when we wanted to kid ourselves that our combined reading age was creeping into double figures. That morning, one of the drivers was loitering with intent. He was a cocky young buck named Ray, an infamous show-off who would fizz around on his truck like he was at Silverstone, picking up and depositing the palletainers with Formula One speed and dexterity, never hitting the bridge, never dropping a single pea.

The older drivers resented him, and you could sense that they'd closed ranks and frozen him out, unimpressed with the devil-may-care stuff, and jealous of his turkey strut and over-confident way with the ladies in the canteen. They would grumble about him to us, but they seemed to find solace in the fact that he was not so hot on the crosswords.

"You know he can't read, that Ray. He makes out he can, but he's lying.

That's the bloody truth."

The target of this bile was dark-haired and tall, and could probably have made a more comfortable living from modelling if it hadn't been for his permanently unslept expression and his yellow-black teeth, the two front ones jagged and broken. He also appeared to sport a permanent black eye.

But he seemed particularly fascinated by us, maybe because we tolerated him, gave him the thumbs-up when he performed some circus trick on his forklift and, more than anything, tried to help him with his crosswords.

You simply couldn't work there as a regular and not attempt to do them. It was unthinkable. But Ray did have problems.

"You know they think I can't read," he admitted that day, maybe suspecting that his colleagues had told us. "You're a teacher, aren't you?" he asked me, lounging on the stack of cardboard palletainers. "Your mate here said you went for an interview or summin' the other day."

"Yeah, well, I went for an interview," I told him casually, "but that doesn't mean much, Ray. It doesn't mean I'll get the job. Maybe I'll stay here." He looked horrified.

"Stay here? No, no. Don't do that mate. It's 'orrible in winter. There's nowt much to do, nobody much here. It's great when you lot come. Have a laugh with you and all, like. Teaching's good. I've got a little 'un who's at school. Teachers are important."

"You've got a kid?" I shot back, amazed. Steve stopped measuring peas and looked up too. Ray looked too young to have kids. Maybe this was part of the fiction that the other drivers accused him of.

"Yeah," he drawled, pleased with the effect of this announcement. "She's seven now. Had her a few years back - well, the missus did."

I asked him which school she went to. "Ah, well." He paused. "We live in Grimsby, like, but we got her into a good 'un in Cleethorpes. Called St Peter's."

"St Peter's? I did a few weeks' practice there, just before Christmas.

Maybe she was in Mrs Howden's class?"

He looked slightly embarrassed. "Hey that's brilliant. You were there? But, well, I don't know her teacher's name. Erm, she doesn't talk that much. Bit shy."

And then, as if to change the subject, he steered us back to the newspaper.

"I can't read that well, truth told," he whispered. "But you two could help me, couldn't you? I mean, what's that say?" and he pointed to one of the clues, the word "synonym".

"That one's all over the place. There's always a lot of that one," he insisted. I shot a glance at Steve, hoping he might take over, but his expression said the same. "It says synonym," I tried. "It means a word that means the same as another word, like erm, whatever," I muttered, unable to deliver. "Like shy and timid," said Steve. "Like your kid."

The next morning was Friday, which marked the end of the morning-shift cycle for us. Saturday off, then start afternoons on the Sunday with a different set of forklift drivers. Realising this, Ray was hanging round the bridge, looking more nervous than usual. When Steve went off for his break, he stepped up to the cardboard kingdom.

"Look," he began, coming up close. "Do you want to come round to my house tomorrow - for a cup of tea, whatever? I didn't want to ask, like, with your mate here. Come and say hello to our Susie," he added. "That's me kid.

I told her last night that you'd been at the school, but she didn't say anything. But I reckon she might recognise you. Whatever. I'd just like you to come round. Never had a teacher in our place before.

"The missus'd like that. Will you come round, about eleven or something?"

he pleaded, as if he expected me to turn him down. "Sure," I said. "I'd be honoured." And I was.

I approached his two-up two-down terrace near the football ground with a hint of a butterfly in my belly. Maybe it was all a set-up? He and his wife were serial killers, united in their hatred of student-kind. I'd noticed a tattoo on his arm proclaiming "killer".

I rang the ding-dong bell. A dog barked somewhere inside and a lace curtain ruffled in the bay window of the house to the left. After an age, the door opened cautiously, and Ray's broken teeth grinned around the frame.

"Phil! Hey - come in. Come in. You came! I thought it was the bailiffs... Susie! You get down here now. Your teacher's here to see you."

After a few muffled barks and a flurry of shuffling and stamping from upstairs, a small girl finally appeared at the bottom of the stairs. On catching sight of me, the stranger, she ran straight to Ray and hid behind his legs. So it was true. Susie really existed. Ray picked her up and I followed him with my mug of tea into the living room.

"You sit on the sofa," he ordered, as if I were the honoured guest. I hovered on the sticky black plastic as Ray sat down on the floor with his daughter still clinging to him like a koala. "This is Phil. He's a teacher," he intoned again, trying to get his family to appreciate the enormity of the occasion. "He taught at your school," he cajoled, trying to get her to look at me. Susie buried her head further into her dad's belly.

Getting visibly edgy, Ray tried a different approach. "Who was that teacher you said to me?" he asked, looking up at me.

"Mrs Howden," I replied, taking a slurp of tea. At the mention of this magical name, the girl suddenly stopped squirming. Noticing the effect, Ray tapped her on the head.

"He said Mrs Howden. That your teacher? Tell your dad. Is that your teacher?" Suddenly, the girl's face emerged from the folds of Ray's clothes. She looked across at me and pointed, a tiny whisper accompanying her gesture. "Jomble-Wimp," she breathed, just loud enough to hear.

When I got home at about 11 that night, my dad was standing at the end of the corridor that led to the front room. This was slightly odd, since he spent most of the time rotting in his chair in the lounge watching TV or staring into space. He was an undemonstrative man from whom emotions crept unwillingly, if at all. Once, when we were watching The Sound of Music, his eyes moistened and he blew his nose - at that point when the Nazis run back to the car to give chase to the Von Trapps, only to find that the nuns had whipped out the rotor arm. Aside from that, and the odd scribbled poem I found in his drawer when I was looking for fags to nick, he kept himself to himself.

"What's up?" I asked. "Everything OK?" He broke into a nicotine chuckle.

"You got the job!" He beamed. "They rang this afternoon. It was the headmaster."

I stood there, nodding, as my dad waved at me to come down the corridor and accept a hug from my mum. They'd never made this sort of fuss when I'd scored a hat-trick for the school team, passed my A-levels or graduated from university. Everybody seemed more thrilled about it than me. Shit. I'd got a job. It felt good to have beaten the other candidates, but standing there with the mindless hum of the factory still burbling in my ears, I couldn't focus on the moment. All I could see was a vague vision of the next 40 years - stacks of unmarked exercise books and howling teenagers.

"How does it feel, love?" my mum asked, clearly thrilled. "Scary," I replied, and lit up a fag.

Phil Ball taught English in Hull for four years, moved on to international schools in Peru and Oman and currently lives in Spain where he combines sports journalism with work as a teacher trainer, textbook writer and curriculum adviser. Extracted from The Hapless Teacher's Handbook, published by Ebury Press at pound;10.99. Copyright ) Phil Ball 2006.

Readers can buy The Hapless Teacher's Handbook for pound;9.99 incl free pp. To order please call 08700 11 33 69, or write to EFC Bookshop, PO Box 200, Falmouth, TR114WJ and quote the reference "TES" or order online at

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